Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
This is our second blog post about the Galapagos. The first half was our 8 day boat cruise through the islands that you can read here.
Our Galapagos cruise put a major dent in our travel budget. We decided that since we had paid over $600 each in flights and fees to get there, that we should also explore the free activities the islands had to offer. All activities below are free unless otherwise indicated and we did this by staying in hostels on Isabela and San Cristobal Islands.
Baltra Airport on Santa Cruz Island to Isabela Island
After we disembarked the Darwin, we took a bus from the port to the airport. This is where we sadly said goodbye to our fellow ship mates as the majority were flying out and the others were on an organised land tour.
To get to Isabela we first needed to get to the Puerto Ayora, the main port town of Santa Cruz Island. This involved a short free bus ride (about 5 minutes) from the airport to the ferry terminal. Here we caught a small boat across a small channel of water ($0.80ea) from Baltra Island (the island the airport is located) to Santa Cruz Island. From here we then had to wait for a bus to fill up, i.e. until the next flight arrived or we could catch a taxi. The taxi costs $18, split by the passengers, the two of us. Trying to save some money, we knew the bus would only be $2 each and we had some time to spare. Luckily for us a tourist shuttle had just dropped off a large group of people at the ferry terminal and offered to take us on the 45 minute drive to Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz at the regular bus cost.
The two ways between islands is flying or by “ferry”. The word “ferry” is very loosely used to describe a slightly larger boat fitting on average 26 people. The current schedule is 7am and 2pm with about a 2 hour travel time and cost $30pp.
When it was time to depart, we went to the dock and it was total chaos. There were people everywhere with long lines to have our bags checked through quarantine (fruit/vegetables are prohibited) and our bags then sealed shut with cable ties. Make sure anything you want in your bag for your trip is in your hands as they do this. When we finally got through quarantine, we were then asked by multiple guys holding clipboards with names, what boat we were on. This is when we realized even though there were quite a few of us heading to Isabela we were all going to be split up into smaller boats. When we first saw the boat we were worried it was small meaning a bumpier ride; and yes we were right. By the way when buying your ticket they all say there boat is big, but it’s a lie, they are all the same size. There were many moments on our voyage that our bums lifted completely off the seat into the air. This was again a nice test for the Dramamine (sea sick medication) we had taken and worked flawlessly. At least the locals were feeling it as well with a few of them asking for sick bags minutes after departure. The funny thing is with these boats, with them leaving at the same time, it looks as though some might be racing against each other.
After 2.5 hours of riding the waves, we finally arrived on Isabela Island and into the only town of Puerto Villamil. When we had our bags unsealed, we decided to walk to town only 1km (10-15 minutes). On the way we asked a few of the eco lodges near the beach how much for a nights accommodation and when they quoted over $100 we instantly walked away knowing this was way above our budget.
Isla Isabela is the largest island of the archipelago making up more than 58% of the entire land area of the Galapagos, consisting of a chain of six volcanoes quite young and active.
We walked into town from the dock (about 1km / 10 minutes). There are pickup trucks to take you for a fee. We didn’t actually realize we had walked right through the main part of town until the next day. This is because the whole town seems to be under construction and all the roads are still dirt or sand. After asking around for accommodation we decided on staying at Hostel Brisas del Mar ($30pn). It had a simple kitchen, hot water shower and air conditioning. It helps to ask for prices for multiple nights as price goes down the longer you stay.
Giant Tortoise Breeding Center – Centro de Crianza de Tortugas Gigantes (free)
The breeding center is located around 1.5km from the centre of town. The walk is highly recommended as you go along a beautiful 1km boardwalk (turn right at the Iguana Crossing Hotel) through some lagoons, mangroves and trees. Here you could see Marine Iguanas, birds and lizards.
At the breeding centre we saw the full range of shapes and sizes from baby tortoises, others ready to be released and also grown up tortoises that were mating. This centre actually seemed to be a better experience than what we had on Santa Cruz.
Rodora’s favourite Tortoise was a baby one that came up to the gate and tried to lick her iPhone as she was trying to take a photo; so adorable.
Wall of tears – Muro de las Lagrimas (free)
During the years 1946 to 1959 there was a Penal colony on the island in which prisoners were punished by forcing them to build a wall with blocks of lava 100m long by 7m tall. The name Wall of Tears comes from the many prisoners that perished in the poor conditions and due to poor treatment. The colony was dispersed when a group of 20 inmates took over the camp and fled to the town to steal a boat from the dock.
As this is around a 13km return trip out of town, Toby decided to rent a bike ($2/hr) to visit this attraction. You ride out of town along the beach and within the park there are various sign posted attractions. This includes some lava tubes, beaches, scenic lookouts amongst other things.
Concha y Perla (free)
On our final full day on Isabela we decided to make use of our snorkel sets and go for a snorkel. Concha y Perla is a small bay located near the dock. At the dock there were many sea lions making use of the human made seat, they are more comfortable than rocks. The sea lions here tend to own the town.
Unfortunately the trail was closed for maintenance when we arrived (and had been for a long time), but as we had our snorkels with us and had just walked 15 minutes to get to the start of the trail we were naughty and decided to climb the fence. The board walk trail was easy to follow through the mangroves with the only obstacle being sea lions lounging in the sun. We accidently woke one up climbing over it that was blocking the path. This completely took the sea lion by surprise and he squealed loudly in shock. It wasn’t until the end of the trail that we ended up at construction section. There was a small gap between the boardwalk and the bay in which we had to climb down and back over, with large rusty nails hanging out of it.
We then snorkelled around the bay. As it was low tide we saw many tropical fish and some sting rays. We were also lucky enough to see some young sea lions playing in the water. As the tide was coming in fast, we decided it was time to vacate the bay. This was the same idea the marine iguanas as they started swimming past us in greater numbers. It’s funny watching these creatures swimming as it almost looks like they are walking on water.
Isabela to Santa Cruz
We booked the 6am ferry to Santa Cruz, costing $30 per person (not including the water taxi cost to the boat of $1). This involved walking to the port in the dark as the sun wasn’t even up yet. Our bags were checked and sealed again, and then we were loaded into a small “ferry”. This was the roughest trip of them all taking 2.5 hours with quite a few people sick on this trip. We were relieved when we could finally see land. We then booked the ferry to San Cristobal for $30 per person which would depart at 2pm. Another option if you don’t like boats is you can take a flight between the two islands costing a little over $100, saving time and avoiding both notorious ferry rides.
When we got off the ferry, all the locals seemed to appear all in uniform with bright yellow jerseys representing the Ecuador football team. This would be Ecuador’s first game in the 2014 World Cup against Switzerland starting at 10am.
As our ferry to San Cristobal didn’t leave until 2pm we had the option to watch the football game with the locals or go check out another free activity on the island; Tortuga bay. As we had paid so much to be in Galapagos we decided on Tortuga Bay.
Santa Cruz Island – Tortuga Bay (free)
The start of the trail is seemingly hidden down a dirt road (not a main street) so we nearly got lost on the way. However, the helpful locals pointed us in the correct direction and we made it to the start of the trail. Here we were asked to sign in, before we started the trail. At the sign in, the rangers were hovering over a small television eager to watch the game.
The trail, like most trails on the Galapagos is well maintained and easy to navigate with a mixture of paved and wooden parts. The trail was about 2km taking an hour of slow walking and admiring the many lizards and iguanas along the way. We then got to the amazing Tortuga beach with miles of pure white sand and blue water, making it one of the most beautiful beaches in the Galapagos. There were also Iguanas sunbaking, making the place even more majestic. The marine iguanas black scaly skin contrasting the pure white sand. The big tip is to not stop at the first beach you see as it’s often rough and unfriendly for swimming. You continue to the right and follow the beach to come to the “second beach” which is almost like a lagoon. You can snorkel but it was shallow and didn’t look like there was much to see, so we just chilled on the sand as we were exhausted from waking up so early.
It was then time to head back to catch our ferry. On the way back there were quite a few people carrying their jerseys, which could only mean one thing – Ecuador lost.
Other free activities on Santa Cruz, which we did while on the Darwin cruise include; Charles Darwin Research Centre and Las Grietas (link to blog here)
San Cristobal Island
San Cristobal is the capital of the Galapagos archipelago and the easternmost island. We arrived within 3 hours, so the trip was a little longer than Isabela to Santa Cruz, but less rough. To our surprise no water taxi was required and we were driven right up to the dock. A little bit more organized than the other islands.
Toby had written down the list of the cheapest hostels in town, so we walked to each one asking for price and discounts if we stay for multiple nights. We chose Hotel Mar Azul at $35 per night for a large room with a small fridge, hot water and also use of their massive banquet preparing kitchen. Unfortunately it was Sunday so most shops were closed.
In the evening we decided to go to the port and check out the sunset and were pleasantly surprised by many sea lions hanging out on the beach. The sea lions have a big reputation of owning this port town and the various beaches. This ended up being our favourite sunset spot, as we could sit for hours and hours watching the sea lions come home from a hard day of fishing. The babies were waddling around the beach looking for their mothers via smell. The alpha males were growling and biting each other over territory, which was really amusing to watch.
Interpretation Centre (free)
The next day we visited the interpretation centre which is located a short distance from the port. The center is a great display of the history of the islands in both English and Spanish. After learning about the history, we took the path to Las Tijeretas, meaning frigate bird in Spanish.
Las Tijeretas (free)
This was our favorite snorkel experience. From the minute we entered the water we had young sea lions follow us when we snorkelled imitating our swim moves and posing for our photos. They are like young puppies just wanting to play with you. It was funny watching them on the dock waiting for new people to play with. We also had the most amazing experience up close and personal with sea turtles. These turtles were slow moving and swimming in shallow water making for some great picture taking opportunities. We never thought this was possible but we’ve never been photo bombed by a sea lion before. One of the young pups was determined to get in every shot and kept diving in front of our camera every time we kept trying to take photos of the sea turtle; it was hilarious, and one of our favorite moments on the trip.
After hours of snorkelling we decided to check out the path that led to the viewpoint. From here you can take another trail in which you need shoes as it’s quite rocky. This path led us to a beautiful coastal walk passing many iguanas and a few sea lions. I can imagine this place more populated in other seasons when the sea lions are not all hanging out at the port beach.
Kicker rock (Leon Dormido – spanish name, meaning sleeping lion) (cost $)
We decided to splurge and spend the money to snorkel and dive at Kicker Rock after numerous people told us how amazing this place was. After asking several dive shops, the cost seemed to be fixed at $80 for snorkelling and $150-$160 for diving. Rodora decided she didn’t like the idea of diving under sharks, so she took the snorkel option. We made the decision to go on the day tour first thing in the morning, so we were shuffled around between the dive shops to find out who had space. We finally found a dive shop (Galeducation) that had space as they only had two other divers, and 8 snorkelers.
When everyone arrived they took us to our boat. This was definitely the smallest boat and most tightly packed boat we’d been on in the whole Galapagos trip. There was only just enough space for everyone, which made Rodora a bit anxious as the last couple of boat rides were rough. Luckily there were no waves and it was the smoothest ride we had. We left the dock around 10 am, as the times we visit the rock are determined by the Galapagos authorities. They can’t guarantee what time you will visit the rock as everything is administered by this authority, to ensure there is some organization and limit the tourist numbers at the rock.
The boat ride took around 45 minutes and this is when we got our first glimpse up close of the magnificent rock that looks like a sleeping lion.
Snorkeling at Kicker Rock – By Rodora
All of the snorkelers were then told to put on all our gear and jump out of the boat. This is one of the most memorable snorkel swims Rodora has ever been in. From the moment she jumped in there were hundreds of fish swimming round her in the deep blue water. It had an eerie feel to it as the water wasn’t perfectly clear but a deep and dark blue, making it scary as you didn’t know what was ahead of you. We then began to swim between the gap between the rocks. We instantly stumbled across a magnificent school of eagle rays (around 11) flapping their fins and swimming in slow motion below us. What was even more amazing was there were Hammerhead sharks, white tip sharks and Galapagos sharks swimming through the school of eagle rays; absolutely breathtaking.
The Hammerheads were gigantic at over 4 meters in length. We were told not to move though as even though they are sharks and huge, they are very timid creatures so any slight movement toward them would scare them away. I never thought swimming with sharks would be so much fun.
Diving at Kicker Rock – By Toby
This would be a new type of diving for me, with the water being quite cold in June; we needed a full 5mm wetsuit with gloves and booties. Jumping in the water I moved into a bit of a trance, wanting to get down and find the sharks. Thinking back on it, I do wonder why during our whole Galapagos adventure I’d been diving to chase sharks without any fear. These would be the biggest sharks we’d see all trip and they really are impressive.
It was just the three divers following the divemaster to a spot on the rock wall where we would try and spot sharks swimming past. What was really lucky is each of the others would have a GoPro in their hands to get photos and videos.
This would be my 15th logged dive underwater since getting my Advanced PADI in December 2013 and it would be the darkest water I’d ever been in. I knew the chances to see Hammerheads were ok but never guaranteed. After seeing Rodora’s photos, amazingly she got closer than we would and much better photos. We have some GoPro video footage to still try and edit, but it’s not ready for this blog post.
The experience underwater was still amazing and we did see various sharks including Hammerheads, but there were a couple of Sea Lions swimming near us who were spooking them away.
Break time at Cerro Brujo
After our snorkel and dive we headed to Cerro Brujo, Wizards hill for lunch. This was an amazing white beach with hundreds of crabs running around. They were scared of people so the minute you started walking towards them they hid back in their hole. There was one young crab Rodora nearly gave a heart attack to, as it spotted Rodora when it was nowhere near any holes to hide in, so it panicked and went one way, couldn’t find anywhere to hide then changed directions multiple times trying to find somewhere to hide finally finding a hole to climb in.
After lunch it was time for a second snorkel and dive. As it was the afternoon there wasn’t as much wildlife so our guide on the snorkel trip decided to tap his fist into his hand to try and call the sharks, which worked! I’ve never seen anything like this and didn’t think it was possible to call sharks.
The diving was also not as good the second time around with not as much to see and no closer to the sharks.
We would then return back to San Cristobal to trade photos and videos with the others and think of where to next.
La Loberia (free)
On our final day in the Galapagos we decided to check out another free snorkel spot called La Loberia. We weren’t going to check this out as we loved the snorkelling at Las Tirejetas, but then we met a couple during sunset who had just been there and convinced us it was worth a visit.
La Loberia is located around 40 minutes out of town, mainly following the road towards the airport. You pass a large mining site on the way, in which the rocks are used to create the island roads and houses. We then got to the start of the trail. We were advised by another couple not to go right as they got lost, so took the dirt road heading left. We found out later this was wrong. When you get to the end of the road, take the small trail straight ahead towards the beach and then take the left trail when you get to the fork. This is a more beautiful walk then the dirt road as you hug the coast and can see many marine iguanas on the way.
You then get to bay, which is mostly sheltered from the larger ocean waves and great for snorkelling. We followed around a number of large sea turtles for a number of hours until we were too cold to go back in the water.
Other activities on San Cristobal
Other free activities we didn’t explore on San Cristobal include; Laguna El Junco, El Progresso (with a tree house) and La Galapaguera Cerro Colorado (giant tortoises). We opted not to do these activities as we had already been to similar places in the previous week and we wanted to spend more time playing with the turtles and sea lions in the water.
Can the Galapagos be done on a budget?
In summary, besides the $400-$500 airfare and the $100 entrance fee, yes the Galapagos can be a budget trip. You can find accommodation on the islands as little as $25 for a room, with a kitchen to self cater. Also you can enjoy the many free activities as listed above (i.e. the fee you pay to enter goes towards maintaining these activities). So many backpackers say they did n’t go to the Galapagos because its too expensive, but if you follow the above then its not the case.
However if you are only going to go via land, I recommend the following three day trips (to ensure you see all the animals)
Galapagos Land vs Cruise?
Yes the cruise is super expensive at $200 per person per day. But was it worth it. In summary yes, yes yes. The advantages of a cruise are the following
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates.http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/